Gwadar Port and the Greater Indian Ocean


The recent decision of Pakistan to handover the strategic Gwadar Part to a Chinese Company (Overseas Part Holding) from Singapore’s PSA (Port of Singapore Authority ) has ended speculations of Pak-China  Collaboration in the Arabian Sea. However, it is too premature to conclude that this would convert into a Chinese naval base anytime soon.

Naysayers precluded Chinese keenness based on the grim security situation in Baluchistan, Indian counters at Iran’s Chabahar Port and US sensitivity to the Persian gulf.    Nevertheless, China has taken the plunge despite these concerns. Theoretically, from a commercial point of view, this would enable China to overcome the Malacca Dilemma (apart from the New silk route through Central Asian Republics and the Kyakphyu-Kunming route through Myanmar) and provide it the much-needed strategic base in Arabian Sea from a Military point of view. (Well theoretically there is nothing wrong with the assumption but practically there are a host of imponderables which night limit China’s options).

Indrani Bagchi avers that as 60% of China’s imported oil travels through the Straits of Harmuz. Having Gwadar port under its command would change the economic and security dynamics for China. Yes, there would be obstacles but a persistent China, adept at infrastructure development, can break through them. Baluchistan  India and US are the three big obstacles that may undermine conversion of this civilian port to a Military base. Combine these with Hambantota in Srilanka, Kyakphyu in Myanmar, Chittagong and Sonadiya in Bangladesh (may be also Maldives) and we have a heady mix of Chinese design for domination of the Indian Ocean.

As outlined by Robert Kaplan in his book ‘Mansoon’, Indian Ocean is where the interests of America, China and India intersect. Based on the assessment of Kaplan, perhaps what seems more plausible at this point is that the “competitive impulses” may grow stronger. If (as Gwadar will perpetuate)  that happens then the United states and India are very likely to find themselves working harder and more closely to balance this asymmetry in what Kaplan calls “the Greater Indian Ocean” (Stretching eastward from Horn of Africa, past Indian subcontinent all the way to the Indonesian archipelago). Currently it is dominated by US which, given its pivot to Asia-Pacific, would resist any change in strategic equations. India’s Karwar base (off  Goa) and its interest in developing Iran’s Chabahar port (which may not come anytime soon given India’s poor execution record) thus world straddle Gwadar (and Karachi). While Chabahar is key to India’s Connect Central Asia policy, experience (Kaladan Multi Modal project in Mayanmar, Hambantota in Sri Lanka and the Maldives airport) tell us that the Indian inspired Chabahar will never work the way a modern port is supposed to work. India’s attempts to woo Oman may offset some of the China-Pak strategic advantages but that is a big “if”.

India thus is in a logjam. Firstly, competing with China in the greater India Ocean without US support may be extremely difficult. Secondly, expecting US to encourage Indian cooperation with Iran is anathema to US’s Iran policy of the moment. Thirdly, Iran itself may not want to alienate China which supports its nuclear policy.

As of now, there are no firm indications that China would want to or be capable of (considering US concerns) convert Gwadar into a military base. But if and when it does India would be found wanting if it doesn’t put the larger geo strategic alliances with US, Iran and Oman in place. Simultaneously, it would have to vitalize its Look East policy to ensure its place under the sun in the Greater Indian Ocean.

Relations between China and US thus are of immense interest to India especially as a “geography determinist” Kaplan explains how “geography determines history”. As per him, the ‘Greater Indian Ocean’ is the essential place to contemplate the future of US power. Unfortunately China too feels likewise. This, despite the fact that China may not be able to take a lead in world politics despite becoming the world’s largest economy some time in future . However, as Odd Arne Westad warns in his book ‘Restless Empire’, this period when China is the dominant economic power while US remains the most powerful state shall be a dangerous one.  Westad also avers that China’s biggest foreign challenge would be India. In fact he quotes it to be a “very big challenge”. His comparison of the two borne out of their border imbroglio, Tibet and socio economic indices makes them ripe for confrontation unless governments on both sides decide to move towards cooperation. Gwadar adds to that list of  risks.

It is here that our post China and India or China versus India needs  a revisit to formulate pragmatic policy options which focus more on cooperation and competition rather than confrontation.


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